This is Part 3 of “Synergy: Performance, Art, & Service.” In the first two parts, I recounted my experiences at 371 Productions live performance of their radio/podcast show Precious Lives and how their call to stem the tide of gun violence intersects with the Origin8 abstract art show in The Pfister’s Pop-Up Gallery in surprisingly beautiful and meaningful ways.
In today’s post, I bring you Jewish Family Services and their own distinct (and distinctive) work to make the world a better place, grounded as they are, I discovered, in the Jewish values of tzedaka (צדקה “charity”), chesed (חֶ֫סֶד “loving kindness”), and tikkun olam (תיקון עולם “repairing the world”). I attended JFS’s Luncheon of Champions last Thursday, which honored recently retired JFS President and CEO Sylvan Leabman. The luncheon’s program booklet featured prominently a quotation from Nobel Laureate Eli Wiesel, who sums up succinctly these three core values: “All are entitled to live with dignity and respect. All are entitled to live without fear or pain.”
On the eve of its 150th anniversary next year, JFS gathered hundreds of its key supporters, allies, staff, and volunteers to celebrate its history and the legacy of Sylvan Leabman, which includes the 2015 opening of the Bradley Crossing Supportive Housing Community, an impressive campus community that “helps low- to moderate-income families, including those with disabilities or mental illness, live safe, independent lives,” which added even more services to a JFS legacy list that includes the Deerwood Crossing Senior Residences, a homelike environment that “offers income-eligible adults age 55 and over both independent and assisted living,” and the Sojourner Family Peace Center, which has worked since 1975 “to ensure the safety of victims of family violence and provide a pathway out of violence for victims and abusers through opportunities to make positive and lasting changes for themselves and their children.” Called “risk-taking” and “perspicacious” by Bonni Bocki Joseph, JFS Chair, Sylvan Leabman is certainly a well-loved model of transformation and justice whose values are inextricably linked to those of the Precious Lives performance and the artistic expression at The Pfister.
Rabbi Ronald Shapiro of Congregation Shalom commenced the luncheon with the d’var Torah (דבר תורה), literally a “word of Torah,” or an interpretive lesson from the sacred text. The mission of JFS, he proclaimed in an extended metaphor that others latched onto throughout the luncheon, is “to affirm that which is noble and good” by being “agents of stability and calm” when “waves of change cause upheaval in tumultuous seas of life.” To that metaphor he added one inspired by Leabman’s first name: sylvan describes anything “forested or wooded.” Sylvan Leabman believed that one should “build all that one in his heart believes are significant endeavors.” Build he did, showing people how to emerge from the “dense, wooded areas of life” into the “light.” Before he recited the meal blessing, Rabbi Shapiro added one more poignant metaphor (I love etymologies, by the way). If you didn’t know, our word companion derives from the Latin panis, meaning “bread,” so that companion literally means “bread fellow.” To break bread with another, to share “sustenance and strength of body” with another. That is what JFS is all about, according to Rabbi Shapiro.
This was a fitting segue from his d’var Torah to the hamotzi (הַמּוֹצִיא), or the traditional blessing over the bread:
Baruch atah, Adonai, Eloheinu, Melech haolam, hamotzi lechem min haaretz.
Our praise to You, Adonai our G-d, Sovereign of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.)
.בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ אֱלֹהֵֽינוּ מֶֽלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, הַמּוֹצִיא לֶחֶם מִן הָאָרֶץ.
As the lunch began, guests enjoyed the meal at tables with a different kind of centerpiece–potted herbs and vegetables that were donated by Luxe Events and are eventually to be planted by the residents at Bradley Crossing and Deerwood, who will tend and harvest them.
JFS Chair-elect Steve Zimmerman invoked the values of tzedaka (“charity”) and chesed (“loving kindness”) that I mentioned earlier, inviting guests to meditate and act: “Think about the type of community you want to live in. What is possible here in Milwaukee? We can’t do it alone. Join us.”
Current JFS President and CEO John Yopps reflected on the evolutionary progression of tikkun olam: “Repairing the child creates repairing the family, creates repairing the neighborhood, creates repairing the community.”
Robert Habush, of Habush Habush & Rottier S.C., whose name graces the Robert & Mimi Habush Family Center in Milwaukee, paraphrased and condensed two popular maxims: “A man is only as tall as the sum of his deeds” and “ A man never stands as tall as when he kneels to help a child.”
And finally, the luncheon’s honoree himself spoke, reminding everyone that suppporting everyone is a social obligation (the word is mitzvah or מִצְוָה). Someone asked him recently, “Why does JFS serve non-Jewish people?” He replied, “You serve non-Jewish people because you are Jewish.” He insisted, though, that supporting those in need at all moments in their life cycle is “not a JFS problem. It’s a community problem.” Mr. Leabman, as my mother used to say, “Bravo.”
In a world that is always in need of repairing, I was thankful to learn about these beloved values that can and should apply to all of us. I would follow up the positive energy of these two days–Precious Lives, Origin8, and Jewish Family Services–with an afternoon of positive community celebration at Sunday’s Juneteenth Day and Monday’s summer solstice Yoga for Peace. Keep the good vibes and compassionate work coming Milwaukee–and you, too, Pfister Hotel!